Rites of Passage

An artist’s field of creation comprises two clearly defined spaces, the space of nature and the space of culture. Until the mid-19th century, the principles of mimesis, imitation or the naturalist imitation of nature in a picture were defined as a space of sensual reception, contemplation, meditation. As of the mid-19th century, society, i.e. the achieved culture follows the established laws, removes the mimetic principles of realistic imitation and replaces them with realism. Art sets up a new center for itself – society, within which the artist can and must act. The nature that surrounds us is no longer defined as the key truth, as the inevitable reality, the abstract and untouchable space. It becomes the mere environment of man’s personal and social survival. The transformations of the moment in terms of society, ideas and politics uncover and set levels of a new truth. Each culture forms its own norms, which define the perception of veracity or reality. Art aims to no longer imitate nature, but rather to modify it in tune with the feeling and situation of social life. In fact, based on the thinking at the time, which is very close to today’s thinking, people comprehend nature with their senses, interpret it with their rational mind and alter it with their actions.

In the early 20th century, due to civilizational progress, art begins to accentuate the natural environment and form the symbolical natural. Among German expressionists, primarily members of the group The Bridge1, as well as in the case of Paul Gauguin, the matter of nature is not such a coincidence. Their rites of passage (escape from the city to the country, from Dresden to the Moritzburg Lakes, from Paris to Tahiti) envisage abandoning the city as an imposed place, mental mockery, urbanization that kills every form of the basic human. Therefore, the departure into a more natural environment should be viewed in the relation between life and nature, the positive environment. The term rites of passage was coined by French sociologist Arnold Gennep, who in 1907 explained the three-part structure within this rite: the rites of separation – separation from the former state, liminal rituals – which include the very interval of passage taking place in specific, unprofane conditions and the rituals of aggregation – which envisage the acceptance of a new social status. Separation from the urban is carried out as a deeply personal rite of crossing the border between one’s own culture and society, and the primitive civilization that is aimed for. This classification by Gennep shows that transferring into a different content from the one we are in does not entitle the passive abandonment of the given content, but rather an active acceptance or approach to the new desired matter. Thus for these artists civilizational content becomes a world of differences, divisions and classifications, a new content within a wild and free community, a world of similarities, direct relations, spontaneity and closeness.

Going off to the country, living in natural surroundings for the members of The Bridge and for Gaugain symbolized a search for a home, a term used by Marianna Torgovnick when describing the occurrence of modernist primitivism2. The search for a home is a metaphor of the search for the primitive, of striving for a place where man feels relaxed and calm and returns to himself, to the unbridled and instinctive. Hence the escape from civilization to nature, in the case of The Bridge group, stems from being uncomfortable in culture, which results from a feeling of anxiety caused by the loss of security in the industrial society and imposed social norms. In their desire for passage, the artists clearly draw a line or a difference identical to the one established by Ferdinand Tonnes between the increasingly mechanical capitalist society founded on the objectives of rational will and the primitive organic community based on the consensus of natural will3. The state of opposition between nature and culture is obvious here. Nature stands in opposition to society in a general sense, to the ruling class, to existing art, to the law, to civilization in general. It carries the notion of a positive place, a place of life, health and freedom. The passage into nature deliberately wants to provoke the so-called feeling of asocial individualism, which is interpreted as the willing abandonment of social regulations, in order for a person to enjoy the complete and absolute function (or fiction) of the voluntary or self-arranged state. That way these artists aim for the symbolic creation of new subjectivity through identification with the primitive other. The passage establishes a qualitative difference between the imposed and disappointing culture as such and the benign nature, which becomes the asymmetrical other in the mirror of culture.

In the role of transit and passage, we recognize something defined by anthropological studies as the term of nature. The formulating of something within nature (form of life and community) and the need for nature, lies within a certain ambiguity. The term of nature is a term of relation that does not exist independently, on its own, rather always in opposition or dialog with another, stands with some other term, on which it reflects as different but which it also complements. The term of nature is “created, changed or established” in a certain culture and a given context4. Therefore, the existing culture forms both the term of nature and the term of natural derived from it, and also builds a special relation between nature and culture, in which the two elements will take certain positions. We can determine the sense in which nature is used and what it represents at a given moment for the mane of culture if we insist on the question: to whom and why is nature or the natural opposed in the given context? What is it that the current culture forms that presents this kind of image of nature? This can lead us to the conclusion that the attention to the natural environment and creation of the symbolical natural in the art of the first half of the 20th century speaks volumes of another term, i.e. not only of the perception of nature (which now stems from the position on primitive of civilization), but more of the world of culture (culture, which now offers an introduction with primitive peoples and different forms of life and organization within nature, a culture of opposition that within itself always forms an ever changing and special sort of spectacle). More specifically, man sees and gets to know nature only through his culture. He is searching for the kind of nature that is formed by his culture, which thus envisages “a network of beliefs, knowledge and goals, so that man actually acts within the boundaries of cultural perceptions of nature, rather than within the boundaries of the real structure of nature.”5 Civilization creates the codes of culture, and culture forms nature.

The above mentioned theses of the relation between art and nature during the 19th century and the historical vanguard of the 20th century allow us to point out certain views and links between the art of the second half of the 20th century and nature as the primal, basic and organic. The book Overlay: Contemporary Art and the Art of Prehistory by U.S. art historian Lucy Lippard, published in 1983, in a special manner overlaps the guidelines of the “primitive” and primal as the basic and local, and the modern as the produced6. The book has seven chapters, with some of them titled “Stones,” “The Forms of Time: Sky, Earth, Words and Numbers,” “Maps, Places and Journeys, Rituals.” Lippard connects certain examples of conceptual art to the archetypal effect of time, words and numbers. She connects the works of Ad Reinhardt and Sol le Witt to the non-verbal domains of experiencing space and time. According to Lippard, the performance of a modern artist can be viewed as the ritual of former religions, in which the aim is to establish the primary relation – psyche-body-space-nature. Performances by Ulrike Rosenbach, Gina Pane and Marina Abramovic – “Rhythm 5“ or “Releasing the voice,“ can be described more as private rituals than as social rituals that contain something shamanic or magical.

In her book, Lucy Lippard presents one of the main theses of her work and of modern art as well, which can serve as the conclusion of this article: “Art itself had to start off as nature, not as an imitation of nature, not as its formalized presentation, but simply as a perception of relations between people and the natural world. Visual art, even when it is peripheral and neutralized, is rooted in matter. Transformation and communication through nature, the primitive link with the substance of life or Prima Materia, is the real manner of all arts…”

Una Popovic